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Remembering Groundbreaking Jazz Icon, Actress Lena Horne

May 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Legendary jazz singer and actress Lena Horne, who broke racial barriers in the entertainment industry, died Sunday in New York at age 92. Jeffrey Brown takes a look back at her career.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we remember the talents and trailblazing of Lena Horne.

JEFFREY BROWN: Legendary singer, dancer and actress Lena Horne overcame racial barriers and stereotypes to become one of the greatest artists of her time.

She got her start in 1933 dancing in the chorus line at Harlem’s Cotton Club at age 16.

JEFFREY BROWN: Horne appeared in numerous films in the 1940s, typically in song-and-dance numbers. She was the first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major film studio.

She had a breakthrough performance in 1943 in the all-black movie musical “Stormy Weather.” The title song would become a signature for Horne in the years to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: A very public figure in a segregated society, Horne faced constant racial prejudices and practices. Her songs were often edited out of films playing in Southern movie theaters, and she thought to avoid stereotypical black roles.

LENA HORNE, actress/musician: My father said: “I can get a maid for my daughter. I don’t want her in the movies playing maids.”

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1947, Horne married composer Lennie Hayton, a white man, in Paris. Their interracial marriage was kept secret for three years.

In the 1960, she joined the March on Washington and numerous other civil rights protests.

LENA HORNE: Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now. Everybody’s got to stand up and be counted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Her friend singer Nancy Wilson said that experience shaped Horne.

NANCY WILSON, singer: Everybody thought this was this beautiful, sophisticated, elegant lady. But there was this fierce tiger, this lioness in this woman, and it came out. And she grew in stature, inside herself. I mean, you could see it. I mean, she changed. She became so fulfilled and so complete.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, the pressures and biases kept her from fully enjoying her time in the spotlight, according to Horne’s biographer, James Gavin, who talked with uslast summer.

JAMES GAVIN, author, Stormy Weather: Despite the fact that she was this exalted MGM figure, was constantly somehow being reminded that, at the end of the day, she was still a black person and considered by a lot of people to be inferior.

JEFFREY BROWN: Horne was a prolific and successful recording artist for decades, on into the 1990s. Along the way, she had other notable successes. In 1978, she played Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wiz,” alongside Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

She also starred in her own Tony Award-winning one-woman Broadway show in the 1980s, which toured across the U.S.

In an interview marking her 80th birthday, Horne said she had become more confident about her place as a leading performing artist.

LENA HORNE: My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m not alone. I am free. I no longer — I sound free because I know longer have to be a credit. I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody. I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I would become. I’m me. And I’m like nobody else.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she showed why as she performed as a Lincoln Center event honoring her musical and civic achievements.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lena Horne died last night in New York. No cause of death was given. She was 92 years old.